Art & Antiques travels to southern Mexico to visit a notorious art forger
turned archaeological sleuth.
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Xalapa, a hilly, breezy city in the Mexican gulf state of Veracruz, is most renown on three counts: Its superb coffee, grown on nearby mountain sides and imbuing the city with the intoxicating aroma of its roasting beans; El Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, one of the world’s great unheralded archaeology museums; and Brígido Lara, possibly the foremost art forger of modern times and hailed in Mexico—for good reason—as a cultural hero.
I experienced Xalapa’s triple claim to fame when I met recently with Lara over a delicious cup of freshly brewed coffee after a guided tour of the anthropology museum. Lara is a short, broad-shouldered, soft-spoken and humble man, whose unwrinkled skin and full head of jet-black hair make him look a generation younger than his 72 years. The revelations a quarter-century ago that many of his forgeries ended up in leading private and museum collections around the world still act as a major brake on the pre-Columbian art market.
“Fear of fakes has helped to deter the looting of Mexico’s archeological sites—and Brígido Lara’s creations have certainly played their part,” says Sara Ladrón de Guevara, former director of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. Lara worked full-time as a restorer for the museum’s collection for three decades and still acts as a consultant there.
Lara grew up in the Veracruz village of Tlalixcoyán as the fourth of a dozen children of a campesino couple who owned a few acres of corn and some cows. He keeps a sepia photograph of the entire family lined up in front of their long, one-room, thatched roof, whitewashed adobe home. At the time, Lara was nine years old and already displayed remarkable, self-taught ceramic skills.
“Nobody in my family was a potter—nobody in the village, either,” says Lara, who spent only three years at school. “But as a boy, I would find small archeological pieces in the fields and near rivers. There was a nearby stream where the village women washed their clothes, and I found clay there that I began to use to make copies of the figurines I found—or to restore them.”
Through hit-and-miss experiments, Lara learned how to prepare the clay, build the ovens and bake the figurines. He immersed the clay in water for up to eight months in order to dissolve impurities and make it more malleable. He then added sand to eliminate oils and facilitate the hardening and baking of the objects. The larger objects—five to six feet tall—baked for five or six hours in the oven, beginning at low temperatures and eventually rising to 800 degrees Celsius. Objects smaller than five feet tall took less than three hours, using the same slowly rising temperatures to prevent them from exploding. “It takes up to two weeks to dry the large pieces—always under an enclosure where they aren’t exposed to the sun or air currents,” says Lara. “The smaller pieces need a week or so.”
For pigments, Lara used the same red and ocher minerals dating back to Olmec times (1200–400 B.C.) that he unearthed near the clay deposits. In most cases, he applied the pigments before baking his objects. Then, for patinas he used earth, lime, salt, and even urine.
Lara’s first clients were traveling dry-goods merchants. Once the rainy season ended, they drove their horse-drawn carts over dirt paths to his village to sell fabrics, clothes, pots, batteries and shotguns. “Some of them took my ceramics instead of money,” says Lara, who was barely twelve years old when he made his first sales. “Then they started to offer me money for my pieces.”
He specialized in forgeries in the style of the Totonacas, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz from 300 A.D. to the Spanish Conquest in 1519–21. By his late teens, Lara had a thriving business with intermediaries who would sell his works to collectors in Mexico and abroad. To this day, he insists he never deliberately passed off his creations as authentic. “I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works,” he concedes.
In the end, Lara proved too talented for his own good. In 1974, he was arrested by the police along with four of his buyers and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works, in violation of the law aimed at protecting Mexico’s cultural heritage. He asserted he had made the pieces himself. But archeologists consulted by the local prosecutor insisted the works dated back to pre-Hispanic times.
Lara spent seven months in prison—and might have served up to 10 years, if his lawyer hadn’t convinced the warden to allow his client to produce some ceramic works using clay from his native village. When the baked pieces were shown to the same archeologists, they again declared them many centuries old. “Some experts they turned out to be,” chortles Lara. “So I was released from jail, thank God.”
News reports of the case caught the eye of Alfonso Medellín Zenil, then director of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. He offered Lara employment as a restorer of the museum’s collection. “I think he was most interested in finding out from me about the forgeries in the collection—and in other museum collections, as well,” says Lara.
Lara created a worldwide sensation in 1987 when an article in Connoisseur (a New York magazine that ceased publication in 1992) cited his alleged forgeries in a number of prominent private collections and leading museums—including the Morton May Collection at the St. Louis Art Museum, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
I contacted all three museums in April 2013 after interviewing Lara in Veracruz. A spokesman for the St. Louis Art Museum said that there were 34 pieces among the museum’s 3,769 pre-Hispanic objects that were considered either fakes or suspicious—though not all of them could be definitely attributed to Lara. A spokeswoman for the Dallas Museum of Art acknowledged that three pieces by Lara—each over three-feet-tall and done in the Totonaca style—were fakes. Both museums have kept the questionable works in storage in order not to let them re-enter the art market.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lara identified as his work a three-foot-tall figure of Ehecatl, the god of wind, that was originally dated between 700 and 900 A.D. and donated by Nelson Rockefeller in 1963. The museum did not respond to repeated e-mail requests for comment. Its website indicates the piece is no longer on display.
According to Lara, who has been visited three times by archeological scientific dating teams from the U.S. since 1986, there are several reasons why it is difficult to determine the authenticity of his pieces. The clay he uses cannot be definitively dated by thermoluminescence tests. Even the use of radioactive carbon dating can be inconclusive because many pre-Columbian pieces have been so heavily restored, making it difficult to determine just what portion of a work is authentic. And the sheer number of Lara’s works—he estimates them as “many thousands”—makes authentication too costly and time-consuming.
Beyond the impact of forgeries, the pre-Columbian art market has been squeezed by laws in Latin American countries and a 1972 UNESCO accord forbidding the export of ancient art works. Buyers even shy away from works with substantially documented provenance. In March 2013, the famed Barbier-Mueller Collection was sold by Sotheby’s in Paris for $13.3 million—well below the $19–23 million pre-sale estimate by the auction house. Undoubtedly, the fact that four countries—Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Costa Rica – asserted that almost a third of the 313 objects in the collection were exported illegally helped depress the final auction total.
Lara’s notoriety-to-redemption story has helped publicize the truly remarkable Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. Built in 1986 by the U.S. architect, Raymond Gómez, of Edward Durrell Stone Associates, the museum displays some 1,500 artworks – out of its 25,000-piece collection of Olmec, Totonaca, Huasteca and other Veracruz cultures. Following the natural terrain, the building gently slopes down through five large rooms and three courtyards, moving from the oldest to the most recent pre-Hispanic cultures.
Unquestionably, the most famous pieces are the monumental helmeted Olmec stone heads. The museum has seven of the seventeen discovered near the Gulf Coast of Veracruz. “This one is the most beautiful and is called El Rey—The King,” says Ladrón de Guevara, the former museum director, standing in the first courtyard next to the basalt head well over six feet tall and dating back to 900–1200 B.C. It has a flat nose and large sensuous lips that recall African features and folded eyelids more typically associated with Asians.
Unlike pre-Columbian collections in foreign museums like the Metropolitan, the pieces here are often displayed in groups, just as they were found at archeological sites. One assemblage of life-size basalt sculptures exalts the Olmec cult of the jaguar: Two male twins are kneeling in front of a snarling jaguar, while another jaguar stands equidistant off to their left.
Perhaps the work considered the masterpiece of the museum’s collection is El Señor de Las Limas in the second room. The largest sculpted piece of green jadeite ever found in Mexico, it is a three-foot-high representation of a seated Olmec lord, holding in his lap a boy, possibly his dead child. The work is dated between 400 and 900 B.C.
In the third room down, devoted to several central Veracruz cultures, there are rare examples of pre-Hispanic paintings on panels that have been placed on a reconstruction of the pyramid top on which they were found. Among the various illustrations, dating from 600–900 A.D., are an acrobat, a group of women warriors, a man carried on the back of a shark, and the decapitated corpse of a player sacrificed after a ceremonial ball game.
The fourth room has a large selection of smiling figurines, dating from 600–900 A.D. Used as funerary pieces, some of these smiling faces are displayed alongside bones and skulls, just the way they were found in tombs at archeological sites. “There are few happy faces in ancient art anywhere in the world,” says Ladrón de Guevara. “Yet in our storage rooms, we have hundreds of them—often made from moldings—which means that these faces were often buried with more ordinary people, and not just rulers and nobles.”
Lara worked on the restoration of a number of these smiling faces and figures. But some of his best restoration work is in the fifth room, which has a dozen, life-size clay figures of women who died in childbirth. The figures were all found in a burial ground, dating from 600–900 A.D., guarding the skeletal remains of hundreds of women of child-bearing age. Some of the statues are holding in their left hand a dead child, its head peering out from a ceremonial funerary bag. Tied around the women’s waists are snakes, ropes or shawls. “Women gave birth standing or squatting, with a shawl tightened around the waist to help push the baby out,” explains the museum director.
Lara hasn’t abandoned the sculpting of figures and vessels in the pre-Columbian style. But nowadays, he signs his works and sells them with a seal from INAH, the National Institute of Anthropology and History. The INAH seal helps ensure that other skilled potters won’t forge his work, he explains without a trace of irony.
Even when Lara’s career ends, Mexico won’t suffer a dearth of top-quality ceramicists to stir collectors’ fears of pre-Columbian forgeries. Lara devotes several days a week to ceramics courses for children in Xalapa. “Some of them are very talented,” he asserts.
By Jonathan Kandell